Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kirby or Lee?

The New York Times ran an excellent, comprehensive story Sunday on the legal battle between the heirs of the late comic book artist Jack Kirby and Marvel Entertainment. The issues are complicated, but the heart of the wham-pow-smack attorney-powered slugfest is copyright ownership -- and all the related monies -- involving iconic characters that Kirby helped create (the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and more).

The article, by Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply, is intriguing for a variety of reasons, including the way it seeks to get a handle on the tactics of the lawyer for the Kirby family, Marc Toberoff. But what I liked best were the insights about the nature of the overall comic book industry. And the most resonant part of all was the observation that the legal dueling would reignite a huge discussion about the relative importance of Kirby's contributions compared to those of co-creator Stan Lee, writer and editor.

No kind of mystery interests me more than sorting out the credit for collaborative genius. I think that's because I'm so dubious about the notion of anything with real creative energy being even a roughly 50-50 effort. My guess is that it's more like 70-30 every time, and in the case of Kirby-Lee, my curiosity is persistent, given the cultural power of their work.

It's trendy to lean toward Kirby as the bigger influence. I lean toward Lee, perhaps because a good deal of the material Kirby did without Lee leaves me completely indifferent. But it has been a long time since I heard any minutia obsessed fanatics debate the topic intensely enough to do real honor to comic book geekdom. I'm going to be delighted if it actually ends up chronicled in the Times.


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  2. From what I see of the Kirby/Lee collaboration it really was an equal effort. Kirby created some amazing characters with emotion and an ability to connect to people in a way that superheroes never did before. However, Mr. Lee's efforts would have been irrelevant without the benefit of a consistent artistic resource - Mr. Kirby. Its not always the case that a good writer just puts out great stuff. You can see a lot of Alan Moore's writing turned into comics by lesser artists is not nearly as interesting as his collaborations with A-list artists.

    I really do think it is a 50-50 split here, but you know how it goes, depending on the subjective observation of the individual parties, they may each think they own more of the credit.

  3. I can't disagree at all with your point about Alan Moore's work.